What’s the Big Deal About Houston’s New Street Lights?

Kyle Shelton | @kylekshelton | March 23, 2016

New LED street lights -- like these in Ontario -- have a cooler glow than the traditional lights, which have a yellow hue. Image via flickr/Sean_Marshall.

New LED street lights — like these in Ontario — have a cooler glow than the traditional lights, which have a yellow hue. Image via flickr/Sean_Marshall.

When I ride my bike or run at night in Houston I’m exceedingly careful. One never knows when a pothole will swallow your front tire (despite recent improvements) or when a split sidewalk panel will trip you up.

A few months ago, as I started the final stretch of an evening run by turning off of North Boulevard and onto Graustark Street, not far from the Rice University campus, I saw light. Not the light, or headlights. Just light – and lots of it. The street was fully lit, from curb to curb, for blocks. I felt my cautionary approach fade away. My gait gained confidence. I worried less that passing cars wouldn’t see me until it was too late.

I’d crossed from the warm, yellow glow of North Boulevard’s street lights, which leave a great deal of the street in relative darkness, and entered one of the many streets where CenterPoint Energy, the Houston area’s utility company, had installed new LED streetlights over the past year.

Major overhaul

Houston has more than 176,000 streetlights, and at this point, more than 60,000 have been converted to newer 45 watt LED bulbs, per an agreement the city struck with CenterPoint in 2014. The bulbs replaced CenterPoint’s older, 100 watt high pressure sodium (HPS) lights, which emit the familiar yellow glow typically associated with street lights.

The LED lights, which are increasingly being installed in cities across the country, reportedly produce half the energy as the old 100W HPS bulbs. Interestingly, they also produce half the amount of lumens, a measure of visible light. Though the light output is less, the clarity and direction of LED bulbs allows them to bring an equal amount of light to the street as the more energy-intensive models. The lights also are designed to last for significantly longer, on average 10 to 12 years, compared to the three-year lifespan of the HPS bulbs. The city and CenterPoint project that the switch will save the city about $28 million dollars.

Brighter. More energy efficient. Cheaper. For a cash-strapped city with a 16,000 lane miles of roads, this seems like a pretty good deal.

Emerging criticism

Over the past few months, though, a debate has ensued over the lights, with several vocal opponents bringing their complaints to the attention of City Council and asking for a pause on installation. Those objecting to the new lights argue they are too bright. Some opponents point to studies that show that this type of light might disrupt sleep patterns.

One study opponents often cite argues that the wavelength of blue light — that which is emitted by the street lights and other devices — can indeed affect production of melatonin, a hormone affiliated with darkness that affects sleep timing. However, that study actually highlights our ever-growing attachment to screens at night as the most pressing iteration of the problem — not street lights.

I spend far more time in front of my computer at night (including while I am writing this piece) than I do standing under the LED street light in front of my house. Also, I have curtains, so the solution for keeping the brighter lights out of my bedroom seems relatively straightforward.

Another approach?

Of course, those who feel annoyed by the lights are entitled to complain. As Chris Andrews pointed out in the Houston Chronicle last month, that’s the beauty of our public feedback process. CenterPoint has also said it will redirect misaligned lights or those shining into windows when complaints are filed.

The good news is that most of the complaints seem reasonable. Nobody appears to be relying on nostalgia for the yellow street lights or arguing for CenterPoint and the city to stop the program. Instead, critics are urging a switch to warmer-colored LEDs that emit a less harsh light. That’s a switch some cities – such as Davis, California – have already started.

But CenterPoint reports that switching bulb types would be too costly, and so far, there has been no consensus on the cost of stopping the current program or transitioning to the softer lights. Considering the possibility, if only on residential streets, seems rational, even if it is not ultimately pursued. CenterPoint did two pilot projects with the LEDs, testing a variety of models in the Bridgeport subdivision and downtown with positive results. But perhaps more pilots would have raised the issues now appearing.

Hard to keep up

But I think it’s also worth setting aside the debate and asking why we have the lights in the first place? At their most basic level, street lights are about safety, as well as the perception of safety. The effects are wide ranging: increased visibility for drivers, the hope that it may help reduce crime, allowing easier sidewalk passage for pedestrians, to name a few. The bottom line is that we all view street lights as important elements of the urban landscape because they bring us comfort and security. When they aren’t there, we’re uneasy. We like to see what is in front and behind us. We like to see what is below our feet.

Houston has been working on providing adequate lighting for more than 100 years. In 1912, when six electric street lights were introduced by Houston Lighting & Power on Main Street, they were celebrated for creating a “great white way” down the boulevard that lit the path for passersby in the heart of the city.[1] As Houston grew over the course of the 20th century, so too did the number of streetlights, but never in numbers fast enough to keep pace.

From street lights in 1912, the number of lights increased to 38,901 by 1967. Yet, the Houston Public Service department said that the number only covered about 34 percent of the city’s residential streets.[2] It’s a bit shocking to think about the fact that in the 1970s the majority of Houston’s streets remained in relative darkness.

In 1982 the number of lights in the city’s 550 square miles had risen to 77,000. This was far below the number in cities like Philadelphia with similar populations and smaller footprints. To top it off, Houstonians who wanted to bring a light to their street were asked to pay, on average, $380 dollars to get it installed and keep it running for the first three years.[3]

Putting it in perspective

Compared to these historic realities, the current debate is ironic: it’s about the new lights working too well. This is certainly a step in the right direction. If all our civic debates orbited around ratcheting down services that were too effective, we’d be in great shape as a city.

Yet, there are many places in Houston and Harris County, including much of the unincorporated ETJ, that don’t have adequate streetlight coverage. Near my home, in the heart of the city, I know there are times when I’m walking in Midtown or Montrose that I wish we had a few extra lights. I am sure there are other places readers can think of where the shortfall is more dramatic.

While some of us can complain about the brightness of our streetlights, many others are still working to bring lights to their communities. These conversations can and should occur at the same time, but they should also inform one another. The priorities we bring to our elected leaders should be couched not just in our individual concern but must also be cognizant of broader community needs.

As I run down Graustark now the LED streetlights allow me to run with my head up. I’ve seen a lot of things I couldn’t before. I notice my fellow nighttime Houstonians. I see new problems, too — cracked sidewalks, debris-filled curbs, and clogged storm drains, to name a few. The lights aren’t perfect, and I’m sure the conversation about what will work best will go on. But I, for one, am happy to have a better view as I move forward.

[1] Big Business shows rapid growth, April 1912, Progressive Houston.

[2] Public Service Dept. Annual Report, 1967. HMRC Folder 8, Box 37

[3] “City’s street lights admittedly lagging in residential areas” Chronicle 1982

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9 Responses

  1. John Dunn says:

    Just hope that Center Point is also working with down lights to minimize light pollution of the night sky. Similar to the standards that are being adopted in the Hill country and west Texas

  2. Fernando says:

    I actually would prefer that we stick with the warm, yellow lights. Light pollution is such a problem in cities that children never see the stars. If we didn’t go around putting super bright lights at night every where, perhaps our eyes could adjust for the lower level of light and still be OK. It would be great to see skyscrapers turn off their lights at night (most of which are not necessary).

  3. Kyle Shelton says:

    Hi John and Fernando, thanks for the comments. Light pollution is a piece I didn’t work in here, but the LEDs actually create a lot less light pollution. Because of their directionality they emit far less into the sky above them. John, while Houston’s aren’t registered as dark-sky compliant, they achieve all major light reduction standards. Centerpoint simply hasn’t pursued the final certification. Fernando, the yellow lights actually produce far more light pollution. The challenge with the LEDs certainly is that they are brighter on the ground, but now Houston is sending far less light into the places John has highlighted. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to have dark cities to the scale that would allow a much deeper visibility of stars, but you raise some good questions about lights in tall buildings and elsewhere. Certainly always worth reevaluating our practices.

  4. Deborah says:

    The problem with the new lights is that visibility in less well lit areas is compromised by the overly bright white light which is seen as higher glare by the eye than a warmer white, even given the same number of lumens. This reduces night vision. Anything beyond the glare of a light in your vision becomes a black hole. I have now seen entire neighborhoods and streets like Stella Link sporting the new lights and they are not an improvement as the glare reduces overall visibility. They are also irritating, particularly for a shorter driver. Just a half mile of them is exhausting. I can’t imagine 400 square miles of them. The old lighting is also not considered good quality. Fortunately, CenterPoint is now testing the new Cree RSW light at 3000K ( a warm white) which is better shielded and now solves the problem of the efficiency of warmer LED colors. The wattage is still too bright (50 watts for now)…30 watts or less would be better for residential neighborhoods, but they are taking a step in the right direction: http://electronics360.globalspec.com/article/6375/cree-introduces-new-warm-color-led-residential-streetlights

  5. Deborah says:

    Computer makers now recognize the problem with blue frequencies at night. Newer monitors and operating systems have the option to take out the blue in the backlight at night and the apps such as Twilight for Android and free downloads like f.lux do the same thing for cell phones and computer monitors after dark. The American Medical Association urges no light cooler in color than 3000K at night as studies show a link between melatonin suppression at night and accelerated growth of certain hormone based cancers such as breast and prostate. These cancer tumors are slowed in the presence of melatonin. Strikingly, totally blind women living in cities have half the rate of breast cancer if they became blind by the age of 65. The same is not true of legally blind women who see some light. There is a reason many cities are moving toward warmer white LEDs including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tucson, Phoenix, Cambridge, MA, Davis, CA and Denver. We can have even more of the advantages of LED street lights: lower energy use and better visibility if we do it right.

    For more information:


  6. Deborah says:

    Have you tried driving the same streets you like as a bicyclist? It is possible that bicyclists do not have to look at the direct glare of the LEDs as much as drivers and pedestrians. In that case, you would see only the resultant light, which is not a problem. A good quality LED street light would do the same for drivers and pedestrians.

  7. Deborah says:

    To put things in perspective, our current light is 45 watts and bright white. Davis, CA residents PROTESTED a 29 watt white light. They ended up with a 19 watt 2700K light when tests showed that the warmer and less intense the LED light was, the more people liked them. The new light was preferred 5 to 1 over the original bright white version. Keep in mind this color is still not nearly as yellow as the old lights, more like a warm white light bulb and you can still see much better, especially when glare is reduced. As glare is reduced, the eye sees the resultant light better and does not perceive that much drop in brightness as the wattage is reduced. If Houston were to do the same, the energy savings would be a whopping 57% above and beyond the current LEDs saving the city millions more each year AND both comfort and visibility would be better. Your premise that the lights are doing their job too well is not correct. At least four studies of dimming show that visibility and comfort are better (because even less well lit areas are more easily seen) and that is why many other cities are making the same change.


  8. Rachel says:

    I’m reading this right now because I can’t sleep because the light outside my bedroom window is so bright. I’ve covered one side of the window with black paper which helps but when I have the window open to get fresh air and keep the room cool I’m still stuck in a room that’s like try to sleep with someone pointing a flashlight in my eyes. I don’t know what to do.

    • Kinder Institute says:

      The author, Kyle Shelton, says: “If you think it’s pointed incorrectly I know that you can call CenterPoint and ask for them to adjust it. Basically they just tilt the bulb or shade a bit to redirect.”

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